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Speech Therapy and Bilingualism

Frequently Asked Questions

There are a lots of myths about bilingualism. On this page you'll find the frequently asked questions by parents of  bilingual children regarding that plurilingual situation and the possible language disorders associated.

Should i be worried if...
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Does Bilingualism cause language delay?

One of the the bilingualism myths is to think that exposing children to 2 or more languages can cause a language delay. Babies have the natural ability to learn more than one language. Bilingualism itself cannot cause a language delay.

There is a big variability in language development among children : some will speak early, others will speak later. When a bilingual child speak later, bilingualism is considered as the cause of the tardiness. In fact, bilingual children start speaking within the same time frames as monolingual children, with the same variabilities between children.

A bilingual child’s vocabulary in each individual language taken separately may be smaller than average. Although, if we take in consideration his/her total vocabulary (from both languages) it will be at least the same size as a monolingual child. It is not abnormal for a plurilingual child to have a smaller amount of vocabulary in one language at the beginning.

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Should we stop talking one language in case of a language disorder?

It may be (mistakenly) advised to stop talking your home language while the child develops his second language. In fact, recent researches show the importance of the home language for the preschooler’s language growth.

On one hand, researches show that a speech or language delay or disorder won’t be accentuated if the child is exposed to a second language. People usually picture languages as two distinct linguistic skills when it’s actually a single skill. As an illustration, people would picture two balloons in the bilingual child’s brain (ex : the “french“ balloon and the “english“ balloon) when there is only one : the “language“ balloon. Thus, in case of a language disorder, difficulties will be observed in both of his/her languages.

It is especially important to talk your native language to your child as you offer him/her the best linguistic model. Children who have strong abilities in their native language are more successful in reading and writing.

On the other hand, to put a halt on the home language can only hurt the child’s interactions with his /her family. Language is indeed linked to affectivity, as well as to the social and cultural identity of the child.

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In which language should Therapy occur?

Ideally, intervention should occur in both languages. The stronger language of the child should be emphasized during therapy while working on his second language to make sure the transfer is done.

Targeting the stronger language of the child during intervention allows us to make sure the child understands all the given informations and to work on more complex language skills. While some transfers are automatically done towards the second language, we shouldn’t limit the intervention to a single language if we want to see improvements in both idioms. Note that the dominant language can change with age and situations : the stronger language might be the native language at first but change to the second language when the child goes to school.

Intervention can occur with a bilingual speech-language pathologist or with two therapists working together in each of the child’s languages.

In any case, the home language should never be changed.

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Should I always speak the same language to my child?

People who speak fluently two languages often go from one to another. If you tend to do that with your child, it won’t cause a speech or language delay

The “one parent-one language“ approach is a well known strategy but there are other possibilities such as “one activity-one language“ or “one place-one language“. Speaking more than one language to your child won’t be a problem for his speech and language acquisition.

The key is to be a good role model for your child. Therefore, you have to feel comfortable in the language you are using with your him/her. The optimum method would be to give an equal exposure to each language. An equal exposure is not always possible but it is important to make sure the child reaches the same language developmental milestones seen in children who are exposed to one language (taking into account the existing variabilities between children).

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Should I be worried if my child "mixes" languages?

Bilingual children sometimes switch back and forth between languages within the same sentence, which people can see as a sign of confusion. It is actually called “code-switching“ and it is a normal behavior for bilinguals whether they are children or adults. Some words or concepts are more easily retrieved in one language than the other.

This code-switching might seem a little more important with children but it tends to be reduced as the child grows up and learn how to differentiate the specific rules to both languages and expand his/her vocabulary.

Researches show that children are able to differentiate and select the expected language in a situation very early (as soon as the second year). Contrary to common beliefs, bilingualism doesn’t cause confusion but develops the child’s mental flexibility. Code-switching is a sign that the child can use all of his/her resources.

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Should I be worried if my child prefers one language to the other?

One of the misceptions about plurilingualism is to think that bilinguals are equally proficient in both languages. In fact most bilinguals have a “dominant“ language, a language of greater proficiency, because one language is heard and used more than the other ones and/or in different places/activities. For example, if your child goes to school in english but speaks french at home, he may not know the school vocabulary in french. A language becomes stronger because exposure and occasions to interact in this language are not equivalent in the daily life. It’s a normal phenomenon with bilingual individuals.

If your child answers in the second language, keep speaking your native language and find other ways to expose him/her to that language, and most importantly more occasions for your child to have the need to communicate in that language. For example you can read books, play games or you can look for programs in your native language in your community.

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Should I be worried if my child doesn't speak the new language?

In the case of a sequential bilingualism (occurs when the second language is acquired after the age of 3), it is possible to observe these phenomenons. The child who is learning a second language tends to go through 4 stages :

  • He/she uses the first language in the second language environment (ex : at school).

  • He/she stops using the native language in the new environment and has a “silent“ period that can last up to 6-7 months. This “silent“ period allows the child to acquire the second language skills.

  • He/she starts usinf the second language in a telegraphic way in imitation or rote activities.

  • He/she starts to construct sentences spontaneously in the second language despite an accent and errors. 

As the second language begins to prevail, the child may lose his/her first language skills. In order to avoid this language loss, the child should be in a situation of additive bilingualism, meaning that the first language is maintained and reinforced while learning the second language.

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Should I be worried if my child makes mistakes in sentence structures?

Bilingual children make mistakes that reflect the influence of their first language or their dominant language (ex : “la rose chaise“ in french is influenced by “the pink chair“). Those mistakes are not the sign of a language disorders but are a normal-phenomenon in the language development of a bilingual child. The child makes mistakes until he/she learns all the new language rules.

How to tell the difference between normal mistakes and a language disorder?

If the child makes mistakes in one language only, it may be a delay in the language acquisition that will catch up with a frequent and repeated exposure to the language.

If the child makes mistakes in both languages, it may be the sign of a language disorder that would need a speech therapy intervention.

An evaluation by a speech-language pathologist can determine the possible need of an intervention.

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